The imperfect perfection of ceramists Hylton Nel and Nico Masemola

9 Nov 2021

In CityLife Arts

The Sphinx regards the viewer with a smirk of bemusement and defiance. It has none of the apathy and inscrutability we’ve come to associate with these mythological creatures. On the contrary, ceramic artist Hylton Nel’s Sphinx (estimate 12 000 – R16 000) is more ‘69 Summer of Love-meets-Mattel than ancient Greek mythology. 

This sculpture – a being with the head of a human and the body of a lion – is glazed a rich pistachio green and adorned with cornflower blue motives with delicate daisies woven into its impressive mane. 

This creature neither guards the temples and ports of ancient cities nor quizzes weary travellers with cryptic riddles in exchange for passage. It is far more likely to have been lurking outside the Temple of Aphrodite cracking dirty jokes with courtesans, or breathing hallucinogenic fumes at Delphi when the Oracle turned her back. 

Nico Masemola’s Black and White Spotted Bull (estimate R12 000 – R16 000) resembles an Nguni version of the Cretan Bull that Greek god Poseidon gave to King Minos, but rued having given later when his wife Pasiphaë fell in love with it. Masemola’s bull is a virile, generously endowed specimen completed in 2015, the year the artist passed away

Sphinx and Spotted Bull will form part of Strauss & Co’s upcoming Tuesday 9 November live virtual auction in Johannesburg. Titled “Perfectly Imperfect”, it is devoted exclusively to the ceramic sculpture of Nel and Masemola. “Strauss & Co is delighted to present this selection of wonderfully quirky ceramic sculptures by Nel and his protégé, Masemola,” says Wilhelm van Rensburg, senior art specialist at Strauss & Co.

The collection pays tribute to both artists’ phantasmagorical, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic. Nel, a renowned ceramist based in Calitzdorp, is the influential mentor of a new generation of talented young sculptors. Masemola, a former apprentice of Nel’s, has so far been the most successful and was one of the most talked-about artists in Strauss & Co’s successful ceramics showcase in November 2020.

This single-owner collection is a riotous ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that harks back to sources in art history, literature and popular culture – it’s a miscellany of wonky vases, grinning dogs, smirking felines, buff beasts and higgly-piggly houses. “This eclectic fascination can be traced back to the influence of Brian Bradshaw, Nel’s fine arts lecturer at Rhodes University in the 1960s, a romantic and extremely passionate person,” explains Van Rensburg. Bradshaw received a grant from an American institution which he used to create a cabinet of curiosities filled with Greek and Etruscan figurines and ceramics, and a host of other items of interest to the students.

“Nel also has an extensive knowledge of Chinese porcelain and ceramics and I think all of these influences promoted his unique experimentation and sense of adventure with ceramic sculpture. They are ‘perfectly imperfect’ works,” according to Van Rensburg.

After Rhodes University, Nel went on to study ceramics at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. After he obtained his diploma, he moved to London where he worked as an artist and managed an antiques shop with his partner. He returned to South Africa in 1974 and settled in Bethulie, in the southern Freestate.

Nico Masemola drifted into Nel’s studio as a thirteen-year-old boy. He wanted to learn pottery and Nel was keen to start him on the basics – making cups. But Masemola was interested in more intricate, challenging shapes, and the result is the charming menagerie we’ve come to associate with the artist – rabbits, dogs, bulls, lions, and horses. Nel is also fond of animals, his favourite being cats, and they feature frequently in his work in a variety of wacky guises.

In an interview with Michael Stevenson, Nel’s gallery representative, the artist describes himself as an ‘artist-potter’, rather than a ceramist. He is not too fazed by terminology or ‘medium snobbery’. “There is the hierarchy of materials – we know oil on canvas is serious, or bronze is serious, but I’ve always been quite content to work in this area (pottery or ceramics), which is not serious in the way that oil on canvas or bronze is.”

Stevenson noted that in the age of perfect industrially produced forms, Nel’s work always had a rough-hewn, hand-made quality. “Well, I just couldn’t, can’t, make perfect things,” Nel insists. When he has attempted perfect forms, he described it as “a form of torture … I couldn’t make them perfect, but I still wanted to make them, and so I just make them – not deliberately distorted, they just come that way. 

“My old teacher Brian Bradshaw used to say ‘Make what you want to make. At first, it won’t be very good, but with practice, it will get better”. 

Strauss & Co’s Johannesburg Auction Week continues on Tuesday, 9 November 2021 with two sessions devoted to the ceramic sculpture of Hylton Nel and Nico Masemola, and the property of Professor Jan K Coetzee, a respected academic, sociologist, collector, writer, art-lover and artist.

The works going on sale are available to view in Strauss & Co’s dedicated exhibition space at 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg. Covid-19 regulations apply. Johannesburg Auction Week commences at 10 am on Sunday, 7 November, and continues on Monday 8 and Tuesday 9 November 2021.

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